There is plenty of commentary and advice out there about having pride in your place in your family, the differences between you and The Ex that you should be celebrating, and the strength that comes from knowing that you’re not competing with her.
In order to facilitate such thought, it’s not uncommon to use hate, or a strong and intense dislike, to put a barrier in the way of our partner’s past with another woman and our feelings. Let’s be honest, putting The Ex into the ‘Do Not Like’ box feels comfortable and exactly as it should be, and complements delightfully the resting bitch face we’ve accidentally cultivated over the years.
But what if, heaven forbid, you realise that there are similarities between you two? Or even worse, she turns out to be likeable.
Coping With Rejection
It’s much easier not to care when you’re being rejected by someone who you know you wouldn’t be friends with if the situation were different, and not to feel that you’re competing with someone when you know that you have nothing in common.
- Not accepting my sweaty hand of friendship? Doesn’t matter, she’s a cow anyway.
- Causing scheduling issues that are encroaching on my life? What do I expect, she’s inconsiderate and I would never behave like that.
- Stepchild calling me a less than flattering pet name which most definitely came from her? Bitch please, you should hear what I call you in the dark recesses of my mind.
- Asking a perfectly reasonable and valid favour in light of something terrible happening in her personal life? Pffft can’t be that bad, get a grip girl!
How I Was Brought Out of My Comfort Zone
The Ex in my life became a stepmum shortly after I did. Up until this point I had relished in the fact that yes, she was a mum, but I was a stepmum, and our worth was therefore measured in entirely different ways.
Flora McEvedy, in The Step Parents’ Parachute, talks about the competition we often feel with our stepchildren in our relationship with our other halves. This is similar to how I felt about The Ex, and her words “Just as you are not eligible for their prize, they are not eligible or your prize” gave me some comfort in how I viewed our roles; we shouldn’t be viewing ourselves as in competition, because who we are to our families is entirely distinct and we must therefore be completely different people. And anyway, how can there be any competition with someone I don’t even like?
It was therefore a full burnt-coffee, as-bitter-as-Katie-Price-on-Loose-Women of a pill to swallow; the realisation that the woman that had caused me not an insignificant amount of grief in the short time I’d known her might possess some of the qualities that I pride myself and other stepmums in.
Qualities such as positivity in the face of bad step-family success odds (don’t look it up), a willingness to nurture regardless of biology, and presumably fortitude in accepting and dealing with her partner’s past. Argh and dammit! This did not fit my narrative and upset not just the apple cart, but my whole bloody orchard.
Positive Experiences of The Ex
This was further compounded by the first positive experience I had of her shortly afterwards.
It was my stepdaughter’s birthday, and for various reasons beyond our control the day we’d had planned for her had gone to pot. We’d even lost the venue we’d been planning to use as we were driving over to pick her up. We had piles of presents in the car and nowhere to go. On hearing this, rather than berating my partner for “allowing the plans to fall through” as I was expecting her to, she invited us in. In to her home! And she let us share our presents with my stepdaughter in her living room.
Maybe this was a result of sudden empathy given her new stepmum status, but I was completely taken aback, and both devastatingly grateful and annoyed about how grateful I was. It showed me a completely different side to her, and I admired her generosity of spirit. Argh and dammit again.
How Positive Experiences of The Ex Might Make Us Feel
Being put in such a position can make you: 1. feel loss, as you realise that you may actually be missing out on something by not being friends with this woman; and 2. coming dangerously close to feeling threatened in your place in your family – how can two people with similar qualities not be competing for the same thing? Are Flora’s words still relevant?
So what can we do about all this?
If any of this rings true with you too, it’s likely that you’re suffering from a build up of resentment which is making a new reality difficult to deal with. Some of us are also faced with the challenge of naturally desiring approval from those we like or feel grateful towards, and this can cause a great deal of pain and despair in the face of what feels like relentless rejection.
Looking After Your Boundaries
Maintaining our boundaries and emotional distance is one way to cope. A way of succeeding in this could be to accept that she is “just what her family needs” in exactly the same way that you are, bearing in mind that her family does not equal your family.
Keeping a very clear distinction between the two households is often important both for the offspring and the mental well being of the adults running them. They might share some members, but they very rarely share ethos (or even good will). There was a great article in Stepmom Magazine one Christmas about a stepmother’s failed attempt at an all-households Christmas gathering, which resulted in her binge-drinking away her anxiety and her stepchildren admitting to feeling that the whole thing was just really horribly weird.
A very effective way of enforcing such a distance is to take a deep breath, and truly and sincerely accept that The Ex is your partner’s responsibility. You have absolutely no obligation to go there if you don’t want to (no matter how nice they might appear), and actually even if you do there is plenty of vet-stepmother stories out there demonstrating that it’s generally better that you don’t.
You may be amazed by the results in your relationship with your partner, who is now empowered to deal with their Ex without your input, and the impact on our own mental well-being. Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster talks about women’s tendency to hate themselves when faced with a “failure to fix”, and some relationships will just remain broken no matter how much you wish they weren’t. And if yours is more non-existent than broken, non-existent is okay too.
Falling Out With The Ex
There are stepmums I follow who have a reverse tale of woe, and maybe it’s slightly easier this way around.
When I first started following the wonderfully upbeat Kristen of Stepmomming.com, she was in business with her husband’s ex wife (providing advice on coparenting). There was an article I read on her blog a while back, which may have been a guest post rather than her own, about the fall out with the Ex for no apparent reason, which resulted in them having to emotionally distance themselves from each other; that’s no easy feat once the emotion is there. This example serves to show that even if your relationship starts well, sometimes it can be too difficult to remain on Best Friend terms in the long run – bad emotion can surface at any time, and it’s good to be aware of this.
So Where Does This Leave Little Old Stilettos?
I am happy to stick with my begrudging admiration from a distance, acknowledging that actually, the respect I have now should always have been there anyway.
So say goodbye to a carefully maintained armour of hatred, and hello to a more stable, more content co-existence with some sort of power retained in your sensible distance. It might not be as fun to talk about over wine with your best mate, but it does make for fewer butterflies in the stomach and let’s face it, we all wish those bastards would just give up and die.
(P.S. If you’re in one of the unicorn situations of genuine friendship with your partner’s ex, well done – and I mean that sincerely.)